I get emails

May 14, 2019 • 10:30 am

This is a new one on me. A reader called “Kolmogorov” made the following comment on my post  “Two defenses of Camille Paglia”:

Scott Aaronson writes about the the Kolmogorov option (suggested alternate title: “Kolmogorov complicity”). Mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov lived in the Soviet Union at a time when true freedom of thought was impossible. He reacted by saying whatever the Soviets wanted him to say about politics, while honorably pursuing truth in everything else. As a result, he not only made great discoveries, but gained enough status to protect other scientists, and to make occasional very careful forays into defending people who needed defending. He used his power to build an academic bubble where science could be done right and where minorities persecuted by the communist authorities (like Jews) could do their work in peace.

Let’s be like Kolmogorov and do some good within the entirely reasonable restrictions that the social justice movement places on us. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Identity politics doesn’t seem quite true, but it’s not doing too much harm, really, and it helps keep the peace, and lots of people like it. Just ignore this one good prosocial falsehood that’s not bothering anybody, and then you can do whatever it is you want.

I disagreed, of course, and you can see my answer to this comment at the first link above. But truly, I’m astounded at someone claiming that we should shut up and just go along with the social justice warriors and identity politics so we can get on with our quotidian tasks. I want the Democrats to win in 2020, and I don’t want the lunacy of some Leftists to scotch that possibility. I can still do science while criticizing what I see fit.

I forgot to add, however, that even doing a particular kind of science can land you in trouble, as happened with Nikolai Vavilov during the Lysenko era in the Soviet Union.

I’ll call “Kolmogorov’s” attention to this post, so feel free to respond to him/her. But be polite, of course.

52 thoughts on “I get emails

  1. If the lead-in “Let’s be like Kolmogorov” had an extra bit added : “when Kolmogorov was in the Soviet Union” – that, I think, makes the scenario clear. Kolmogorov was acting that way because the other options *in the Soviet Union* could not have been … favorable.

    1. Not surprisingly, the keyboard warriors are from a generation that has no memories of communism or the Soviet Union. Many would have made excellent Cultural Commissars.

      1. Or the Red Guards. This exigency of public penance and self-humiliation, and that still not being enough, as demanded by the SWJ’s for a minor ‘misstep’ reminds us of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. I read a book (highly recommended) “Wild Swans” by Jung Chang that gives us an idea.
        Maybe the SWJ’s should read it.

        1. Studied that in Chinese history but didn’t realize how horrible it was until I read The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin (fictional, but I think it was accurate in its portrayal).

          Chinese censorship is reaching even Hong Kong nowadays.


  2. “Let’s be like Kolmogorov and do some good within the entirely reasonable restrictions that the social justice movement places on us. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater”

    We do not have to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater.’ We can keep social justice while not caving in to people who try to restrict free speech. We do not have to give in to those who bully others to get what they want.

    Intellectual discourse is an important tool of civilization. I don’t think the current environment warrants the use of the Kolmogorov option.

  3. Instead of “Let’s be like Kolmogorov”, let’s be like Picard:


    “With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.” … The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on, we’re all damaged.

  4. I understand the claim that the SJW’s are pretty harmless. After all, they are a fraction of the left, although perhaps growing, and they hold very little political power. Their utterances are great material for comedy (and I do wish the comics would make use of that).
    But they are not harmless. They have damaged or destroyed the careers of many people, and many of those people were good, decent people who did not deserve what they got. They are hollowing out the core of the humanities at universities. And comedians don’t generally go after them out of fear. That alone should tell you that these folks are not trivial.

    1. I agree. Many academics may think they are harmless until they become victims themselves. They assume that it will never happen to them. I suppose it is an understandable form of cowardice but largely responsible for the power the Ctrl Left enjoys.

      “Then they came for me
      and there was no one left
      to speak out for me.”

      Ok, not an exact fit but …

  5. As I have argued before, and will argue again, identity politics is as American as apple pie. It has always existed in American politics and will always remain so as long as the country remains a democracy (something that is in doubt at the present moment). Many, if not most, people identify with certain groups, whether they be based on race, religion, ethnicity, or something as mundane as their favorite sports teams. Members of a group are primarily concerned with the welfare of the group. They are not concerned with the greater good as some would argue has been the case with whites. When the group feels threatened in terms of social, cultural or economic dominance, it will strike back at the groups that threaten it. This is currently the case with the re-emergence of extreme white identity politics, far and away the biggest identity group in the country. Some people who cherish their “whiteness” are racists or white nationalists. Others do not particularly dislike or hate other groups; they simply do not want to relinquish their dominant status.

    In American history, the dominant identity group has felt severely threatened on many occasions. White Protestants felt particularly threatened by White Catholics in the 1790s, 1850s, and 1920s. Today, white Protestants and Catholics have entered a marriage of convenience that may last a long time. Just being white is good enough to be a member of one huge identity group. The alliance is necessary to combat the greater threat of the non-Christian brown people. The right wing hypes this threat by disseminating their false understanding of identity politics. In its most extreme form, Fox News host Laura Ingraham rants about “losing the country.” And polarization continues apace.

    In an article on the Washington Monthly site, Richard Kahlenberg discusses white identity politics with Ashley Jardina, who has written a book on the topic. He offers some suggestions on how to temper the polarization that the outburst of extreme identity politics is infecting American society.

    To conclude, identity politics is not something going away. It is a fantasy to think so. Allegiances of people to groups that give them a sense of dignity and self-worth is part of human nature. The goal is allow identity politics to play its natural role in politics without threatening the survival of the nature. To invoke a medical analogy: all people need to carry a certain level of cholesterol to remain healthy. Only when it rises above a certain level does it threaten the life of the individual.



    1. Given your understanding of what ‘democracy’ means, do you think identity politics is good or bad for it? Or perhaps neither good nor bad?

      Do you think American democracy has room for improvement (in a broad sense)? If so, in an improved democracy, would you want more or less identity politics?

      ‘Many, if not most, people identify with certain groups, whether they be based on race, religion, ethnicity, or something as mundane as their favorite sports teams.’

      With the exception of sports, do you think that the extent to which people identify in such ways has decreased over time?

    2. The alliance [between White Protestants and White Catholics] is necessary to combat the greater threat of the non-Christian brown people.

      I think the alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants was forged initially in the battle over abortion after Roe v. Wade (and not immediately after Roe, but a few year later, when the rightwing recognized it as a powerful tool for exciting certain voting blocks). I think it spread out from there to other kulturkampf issues, including the resurgence of anti-immigrant Nativism and nationalism we see now.

      I also think that the battles between White Protestants and White Catholics in the 1790s, 1850s, and 1920s to which you advert were not so much about religion per se, but about Catholicism serving as a proxy for ethnicity, during periods of mass immigration in which the more reactionary elements of the WASP establishment feared being overrun by untermenschen (so to speak) — first the Irish, then the Italians and other southern Europeans, then immigrants from middle and eastern Europe (the latter of which included not only Catholics but Jews).

      If you look at the language used during this nation’s earlier bouts of Nativism, it is nearly identical to what one hears now in terms of the fears and biases expressed toward Mexicans and Central Americans and immigrants from Africa and the Muslim world.

  6. I think, as PCC worries about at times, that it is a great distraction for the democratic party. I don’t know how you make it go away but it all tends to be very self centered and not really beneficial to the majority. The real enemy to all is the nut in the white house so spend more time getting that message out and not worrying about all your little issues on campus. If I said that to all the Social Justice types would they even listen?

  7. Given your understanding of what ‘democracy’ means, do you think identity politics is good or bad for it? Or perhaps neither good nor bad?

    Do you think American democracy has room for improvement (in a broad sense)? If so, in an improved democracy, would you want more or less identity politics?

    ‘Many, if not most, people identify with certain groups, whether they be based on race, religion, ethnicity, or something as mundane as their favorite sports teams.’

    With the exception of sports, do you think that the extent to which people identify in such ways has decreased over time?

  8. It is not wrong for interest groups to pursue their common interests. All are equally entitled to do so. Vilification of others, is however, something else altogether. It is pure aggression. Vilifying others may be an effective way to build group solidarity (and the psychology of the matter seems to bear this out), but that does not excuse it. Identity politics is fine as long as it does not turn into a culture of banishment, ritual disrespect of other groups or efforts to crush the opposition. It is important not to lose sight of the distinction.

    1. Yes, that is an important distinction, the one between pursuing a common interest and vilification of the other. I think most here would agree with that.
      Indeed vilification of the other is an effective way to build group solidarity, the eternal ‘Us vs Them’. A good reason to be alert against it.
      We should try (eg.) not to vilify SWJ’s. As an opening gambit, I’d say they are well meaning in most cases.

      1. “We should try (eg.) not to vilify SWJ’s”

        You’re absolutely right. Be wary, but never vilify. Indeed, in themselves they are not the problem. It is the unwarranted degree of credibility they are accorded by the people entrusted with real institutional power and discretion.

      2. “We should try (eg.) not to vilify SWJ’s.”

        Agreed. But I think there is always room for vilifying (speaking ill of, disparaging) their sloppy thinking while still acknowledging their good intentions.

  9. Allusion to the Kolmogorov option reminds us how much academic life here is beginning to resemble its counterpart in the late lamented Soviet Union, in its most dramatic phase. Beside the atmosphere of intimidation, we have rather similar orthodoxies: assumption of the Blank Slate; denial of Biology (from the brigades of Critical Gender Theorists); focus on the class (or identity) origin rather than content of any statement; and insistence that social engineering (in aid of “justice”, of course) trumps every other consideration, including factual accuracy.

    Perhaps, before long, our campus activists (with the support of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion) will demand dismissal of all counter-revolutionary wreckers on the faculty who teach bourgeois Mendelism-Morganism.

  10. Maybe I’m misremembering, but wasn’t the Soviet Union also notorious for taking the extra effort to quash the arts and ensure that anything that wasn’t state propaganda could land you in prison? Kind of an odd choice of example when the suggestion is we sacrifice an art history professor on the altar of social justice in order to appease them so that supposedly they won’t interfere with other people’s work. Nah, they’re going to go to the senior film and animation show or vaudeville show, lose their minds over something they don’t like and start demanding that projects go through a sensitivity review to make sure your work is sufficiently in line. Better hope you’re a sculpture or painting major who is comfortable doing abstract work so you can BS your way past the review.

  11. Wow. Let’s just ignore the fact that the Soviet Union was fundamentally unjust? Kolmogorov might have managed his internal emigration, but that was purely luck, amd nothing about his lifestyle would have protected him if some official decided otherwise. How would this be a life to be desired, or passively accepted?

  12. Kolmogorov? Bizarre. I had acquaintances in graduate school who idolized KAM theory. They were odd too.

    Want to be like Kolmogorov? Then stabilize an ergodic system with whatever demon you prefer, but let the social justice dissipate.

    Is this where we’ve come: employing Kolmogorov to defend social justice? Go home 2019, we are done.

  13. This is a flawed analogy, because what Kolmogorov did was damage control against an opponent with total power. If he stood up to them, he would have started a fight he literally could not possibly win or have any positive effect with it whatsoever + possibly fatal consequences.
    The Western ID-pol/neo-Marxist movement is nowhere near to that position and standing up to them is important to prevent them from nearing any remotely similar position.

  14. Comparing a few social justice adherents to a totalitarian state, especially when the US currently has one of the most rightwing reactionary governments in memory, seems like pretty straightforward trolling.

    1. In democratic countries, the government has a fairly distant influence on the citizen’s life. The Outrage Brigades who get people fired for thoughtcrimes have a very direct influence. More and more often, I hear people in the US and UK say that they cannot openly say this or read that. I suppose that this contributed to the current rightwing reactionary government.

  15. Identity politics is the enemy of common humanity. At the moment, the left are weaponizing it, but the right are just as adept at this (see this link to the far right in the UK for an explicit example)
    In general–idenity politics, of any flavor, is partisan, anti a common humnaity, and to be resisted. Yes, its natural. So is nepotism.
    We are meant to be better than this. We can be better than this.

    1. “, but the right are just as adept at this ”

      You illustrate your point with a 19-year old video of Nick Griffin, a totally insignificant and discredited failed politician who leads a tiny, irrelevant lunatic fringe party. If this is your best example of the UK far right it suggests they’re not very adept at anything.

    2. You have a much better chance of getting rid of nepotism than identity politics because, yes, the latter is natural, an indispensable part of democratic politics in societies, such as the U.S., that are composed of many different groups with different interests, and is not going way (nor should it). Identity politics is nothing more than various groups in a polity vying to achieve as mush power and status as possible. One group pushes against another in the hope that both achieve enough so that they accept the end result with the realization that not everything hoped for was achieved. The idea is to tame its extreme elements where the acceptance of compromise is ruled out. In my comment above (#6), I referenced an article that offers some suggestions to effectuate this. Merely complaining about it is a form of virtue signaling and accomplishes nothing. Calling identify politics the “enemy of common humanity” is the same as saying “cancer is really bad. I wish someone would do something about it.”

      1. I agree with almost everything you wrote with the exception of the “…the latter is natural…” The framers recognized that both nepotism and identity politics (they used the term “faction”)were natural and could and, in more cases than not, would result in undemocratic outcomes. But they also recognized that the solutions would have to be different. While nepotism could be easily handled legislatively; faction not so much so. Consequently, they designed a system, based in part on the assumption that faction identification would be relatively fluid based on particular individual interests, to mitigate its ill effects via competition. So, I wouldn’t say that they found it as “indispensable,” but more as unavoidable.
        As an aside, I’m amazed the system works so remarkably well except when large percentages of people see their highest personal interest is maintaining the cohesion of a political faction. In those instances, no institution has been devised to mitigate the damage. That responsibility, the framers left to us, the “knowledgeable” electorate.

    1. Many European countries, including Hungary, need not be turned into white Christian ethno-states, because they have been such for many centuries. Those European countries that have left behind this model show, to my opinion, very mixed results. Many of their citizens advise the white Christian ethno-states to remain as they are.

  16. The Kolmogorov option reminds me of other options from the good old USSR. One was geographical. The hand of the Party-state weighed more lightly on academic life in remote parts of the country, so these became to some extent havens of free-thinking. The classic instance was the Siberian Акаде́мгородо́к or “Academic City” housing Novosibirsk State University and numerous research institutions. Wikipedia recounts: “During the early years residents enjoyed great freedom from the rules and restraints of the Soviet Union, with a modernist cultural centre exhibiting works by banned Soviet artists, risqué poetry evenings, and other activities allowed nowhere else. Scientific research in areas dismissed as dangerous pseudoscience in Moscow, such as cybernetics and genetics, flourished.”

    Accordingly, consider an Akademgorodok option for American academics. Perhaps exiles from Phila. Arts, Evergreen, Williams, Middlebury, Yale, etc. etc., could find refuge in the University of Alaska.

    Another Soviet option was that affiliation with an approved field could shelter those in risky fields. So, for example, Biologists sometimes sheltered under the wing of Medicine or Physics, as Zhores Medvedev did by working at an Institute of Medical Radiology (before he was finally exiled).

    It would be simple to combine both options in the American context. An art historian like Camille Paglia or an evolutionary biologist like Bret Weinstein could simply associate themselves with the fisheries field, and move to the Juneau campus of U. Alaska. That campus, by the way, is breath-takingly beautiful, so they could do worse.

  17. Your reply to Kolmogorov is excellent and exactly right. Even in terms of realpolitik, which is what Kolmogorov is talking about (e.g., keeping silent about third-rail issues in order to get elected and do good things), his reasoning is bass-ackwards. In this instance, keeping silent about identity politics is the third-rail. His claim that “many people like it” is simply false: a small minority of even left-wingers like it. What “many people” are doing is watching how Democratic candidates address this issue, and silence about it will result in not getting elected. Kolmogorov has his head in the sand–to put it politely.

  18. Sounds fishy to me. As you note, it’s a very weird stance to take. Wonder if it’s a troll hoping to inspire an indignant response for whatever reason.

    1. I tend to agree. I did a little cursory research (i.e. Wikipedia) and it turns out Kolmogorov was one of the accusers in the “Luzin affair,” where some of the charges against Luzin were purely political.

  19. As it happens I have a translation of a Soviet math (and physics and computing, though advertised as a math book) textbook where Kolmogorov is one of the editors/authors.

    Even in this “free from the world as much as possible” context there are still ideological sections. There’s an attempt to explain why discussing space abstractly, for example, is not idealist. (I agree, and it is a decent bit of philosophical truisms, but it is amazing that it had to be done – or the authors felt they should include it.)

    I have asked a student of Russian matters I know to see if he can find the Russian original – it apparently had some interesting references to Soviet computing and AI (from the 1950s!!) that have been replaced with English language ones in the translation. I wonder what *those* are like – the originals I mean.)

  20. Is it off the mark to suggest – as I seem to detect – Kolmogorov has developed a cult of personality?

    1. Proof reading error :

      I mean that a cult of personality has developed around Kolmogorov?

  21. I read Aaronson’s article, and while he probably got the psychology of dictatorships correctly, his is a conspiracy theory among democratic societies.

    Of course there is always a modicum of conspiracy corruption, globally 1 in 100 of economical transactions is perceived as corrupt. But I am astounded and discouraged by Aaronson taking an anecdote as evidence.

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